My intention is to photograph used and saved pregnancy tests from people who are happy for me to do so. The tests are all from authentic “decisive moments” – moments when each test was the sole focus of someone’s attention, and their world and life changed at that moment when they saw the result. Each test is to make one decisive moment, one image. I have been asked where the stimulus for the work originated. It was very unexciting – I had not come up with anything satisfying, so considered what the decisive moments have been in my own life. Seeing positive results on two pregnancy tests were right up there at the top. I no longer have those tests, I reluctantly threw them away a couple of years back, but I was pretty sure that other women kept their tests and thought it might be worth a try.
The work needs to be done respectfully as these tests are other people’s cherished memories. It needs to be done with dignity, care and compassion as some of these tests are from pregnancies that did not subsequently go to term. I want the work to be as authentic as possible, so there will be no dusting or wiping or fluff-picking from any of the tests.
I want the work to be done differently, with minimal context. I didn’t want the classic Instagram shot, and I did not want to include people (neither adults nor children), nor to make any suggestion as to how the pregnancy was received or how it proceeded. Having looked at the work of Elina Brotherus and Nigel Haworth I also knew that much as I admired their respective choices of self portraiture on a large staged scale, and beautifully designed and constructed still lifes; that they weren’t the routes for me. They’re not really suitable ways for me to show other people’s tests. So how to photograph the tests differently without them looking like another set of #bfp social media posts? How to remove the context but still make images with plenty to say?
I decided to concentrate on the moment and the physical test itself, rather than the journey to that moment, or the outcome. I wanted to show a simple documentation of the moment, as it was visible on the test, after an amount of time that varied from several months to about 14 years. There’s a similarity here between pregnancy tests and instant print photos such as polaroid – both are triggered (either by light or urine), and both require a period of time to develop before the result is clearly visible. Both then change over time – degraded by light, biology, chemistry, dust, time. Both are quite likely to be kept for sentimental reasons, tucked into an album or a memory box. Inevitably, each test will change over time. I thought that recognising this passage of time and the changes in the test therein would add something to the work. Finally, I decided to concentrate on the physical and visible characteristics of the test itself, particularly those parts of it that change over time.
I needed to take my research off at a tangent compared to the original research into work involving pregnancy tests. With my knowledge that I would be photographing the tests as tests on a plain background (the same piece of card was used wherever I shot), I considered the work of two photographers who have inspired me in the past – Taryn Simon and Moyra Davey. Taryn’s work Contraband is a collection of images shot on location at JFK Airport in 2010, all the images are of items that were seized or detained from incoming passengers or post. There’s a very forensic quality to her work, nothing distracts the eye from the object itself. She used a steel tabletop in some work, which I was very tempted to do too but realised that this would be impractical as some tests had to be photographed at other homes than mine.
I was starting to think about macro shots of parts of the test, and remembered Moyra’s series Copperheads. She photographed 100 1 cent coins, with a macro lens, showing the variety of wear and degradation to the depiction of Lincoln’s face on each one. Some of the faces looks almost like landscapes, with the wear and changes to the profile of the profile on each one. 100 theoretically identical coins all look very different presented as images in a 10×10 grid. This got me excited about working with more close-up images of the tests. Would they all be different, or would they all look the same? How might they differ? Would they still look different if I cropped down to just the test results? I liked the idea of paying such close attention to an object that is widely recognised and yet still rarely seen outside of specific contexts. There’s something slightly different and gloriously gross about photographing something that has been weed on, it reminded me of Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document, which included her son’s used nappy liners. I find myself wondering if a used pregnancy test sustains life itself once it’s indicated the presence or absence of new life – does it get colonised by bacteria? How many? How long? What would it look like under a microscope?
The other work that I wanted to view was Larry Sultan’s and Mike Mandel’s book Evidence, which I read about in Source Journal Issue 88. They used “found” images of experiments, decontextualized them, and recontextualised them. The result has a pervading sense of both seriousness and complete oddness. The book is currently out of print but will be reprinted in spring next year, I have ordered a copy. I have looked at some images on line. They are all in black and white, I suppose because the original images were all in black and white. It made me wonder if taking my images into black and white would remove another layer of context (after all, the “Clearblue” brand is built around its blue lines). I think it probably would, but possibly at the cost of removing the layer of “grossness” – aspects of a test such as tidemarks appear neutralised and benign rather than technicolour “euurgh” once converted to mono.
Returning to my work, I want the images to concentrate on:
- FORM – the shape of any windows, of edges, of lines and bleed
- COLOUR/CONTRAST – stripes, lines, background, tidemarks, chromatographic fading and bleed
- MARKS – speckling, age spots, crystals
- EXTERNAL textural additions – such as dust, fluff, hairs, fibres
Overall, my interpretation of the Decisive Moment is that at some point in the past, someone was waiting for each test to show the result, it was the sole focus of their attention, a tangible indicator of new life. Further to this, these tests are, and represent, decisive moments that have been kept for months and years, indicating that they represent a significant decisive moment. Keeping the tests makes them susceptible to the “ravages of time” and we can also see signs of aging, of chemical and biological change, and of the environments where the tests were kept – almost a trail of domestic DNA possibly over different homes, towns or even countries. Bearing in mind the exercises around long exposure in Part 3, I thought this was interesting as it adds the evidence of time passing from the intervening months and years since the test was done.
Sultan, L., Mandel, M., F, R., Philips, S., Forth, R. and Philips, A. (2003) Sultan Larry & Mandel Mike – evidence. New York: DAP, Distributed Art Publishers.